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CITES revisited

  • Subject: CITES revisited
  • From: "Jay Vannini" <interbnk@terra.com.gt>
  • Date: Fri, 27 Jul 2001 19:42:07 -0500 (CDT)

Greetings, fellow aroid-amig@s:

Perhaps because I reside in a country where differences of opinion are
expressed via Molotov cocktails and automatic weapons' fire, I really do
relish a civil debate. Thus far, this exchange seems to be just this, in
spite of unambiguous differences of opinion on the forum regarding Josť
Portillo's alleged actions.

Steve Marak has spoken a mouthful when he says that no-one's
opinion/position ever seems to change during these arguments on the internet
forums; he is quite correct, probably because it is an incredibly complex
issue that sparks strong emotions from wild-eyed plant collectors and less
fanatical gardeners alike. Having worked around tropical flora and fauna
quite a bit, I have come to the conclusion that there are a number of groups
that inspire the most incredible acquisitive lust from some of the human
populace (including me). They are cacti & succulents, cycads, orchids,
psittacine birds, raptors utilized in falconry, and reptiles & amphibia. All
are well-represented in the CITES appendices, most generate huge commercial
trade figures, and all generate a considerable amount of acrimony when their
exploitation and protection is discussed. Having seen both sides of the
trade of all of the above, I would have to refute the statement made here
that persons genuinely interested in conservation would NEVER knowingly
violate the laws designed to protect wild plants and animals. No surprise -
many professionals can see shades of gray, when it is convenient to do so
for their own ends.

As for us sauntering into less-developed countries and cleaning out cultural
patrimony with a song on our lips - come on, read the papers or watch the
news, brother - that's EXACTLY what is done, and the debate about this has
been going on for at least 200 years. Almost every one of the western
world's major museums has this kind of ethical/legal thorn in its side
relating to "filched" Greco-roman, precolombian, Egyptian or Khmer artifacts
(e.g. the Elgin Marbles and the British Museum) and the number of returns to
countries of origin are, to put it mildly, not breathtaking.

Reggie Whitehead prefaced his comments about the tragic destruction of
ancient forest in Borneo with a clear and eloquently expressed example of
the existence of bad laws that were widely applauded by Joe Public in their
heyday. CITES, while not a bad law, continues to be misunderstood by both
the general populace and bureaucrats. It is a trade monitoring treaty, not a
wildlands conservation tool, nor a "red" list where species NOT threatened
by commercial trade, but rather by habitat loss, belong. Born as the
Washington Convention, I have heard it referred to as the love child of
well-meaning wildlife preservationists and the worst elements of the
European reptile hide trade. While I definitely agree that CITES has its
merits, one has to question its efficacy as a trade reduction mechanism,
since the U.S. has recently had to enact ADDITIONAL legislation specifically
designed to prohibit import of tiger and rhino "spare parts", already
covered under CITES (both groups are conspicuous on App. I). The USFWS is
the government body charged with overseeing the implementation of CITES
regulations in the U.S. Their law enforcement division by and large does
some incredibly good work, but like any police force, has its share of
zealots and creeps. As long as the general populace believes that wild plant
and animal collectors are all hybrids of Hitler and Jabba the Hut,
prosecutors will feel inspired to persecute them, little and big guy alike.
It is, after all, much easier to point the finger at wildlife/plant
smugglers as being the only culprits leading organisms down the path to
extinction than at ourselves as the principal consumers of tropical products
harvested from, or grown on, deforested landscapes.

On another front, CITES has many quirks, one of which is the "look-alike"
provision, which basically provides blanket protection to non-threatened
organisms that are visually similar to the "threatened" target. This
includes some common cycads, many abundant orchids, roadside weed Nepenthes
species, etc. This really does seem silly. Likewise, the auctioning of
seized wildlife products by the USFWS once they have served their
evidentiary role is simple bloody hypocrisy. Like Kenya has done with its
seized poached ivory stocks - torch this stuff if it's a *point* that you
want to make, rather than a *buck*.

I admit that I feel genuine sympathy for anyone who gets busted for bending
the rules when it relates to this particular issue. Grimace at this ethical
lapse if you must. At the same time, I understand that law enforcement has a
job to do, and that society has decided that these are the rules we are
supposed to play by. If it is true that Portillo admitted on tape to
"fudging" the origin of a protected plant, I suspect that he's in a heap of
trouble, if not in the U.S., certainly in Ecuador, where his local authority
is going to end up with egg on its face. Ecuagenera is, as I pointed out in
a previous post, a well-known orchid exporter, and he is going to have a
hard time pleading ignorance of the rules of the game. Bummer - one should
always remember the 11th Commandment (just kidding, Big Brother).

Who is on the "right" side of the "gray market poaching" debate remains to
be seen. I try to remain neutral, but I do suspect that history will show us
to have been sanctimonious twits who sat around and earnestly debated the
gender of angels against a backdrop of the world's natural patrimony going
up in smoke.

Peace -

Jay









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